Secret Files: Supermarine's 'Destroyer'
20th April 1942 – a huge military parade on a bright, clear spring morning is being held along Unter der Linden in central Berlin to celebrate Hitler’s birthday.
Although the Third Reich at this time controls most of western Europe and a good proportion of the western Soviet Union, the Nazi hierarchy is secretly worried about the rumblings of declining morale amongst the German population as Britain’s new four-engined bombers – the Halifax and the new Lancaster and Salisbury have the range to deliver increasingly large bomb payloads across the Fatherland by day and more often by night. But there are no air raids this morning as Hitler and his cronies accept the accolades of the parading armed forces and the almost three thousand of Berlin’s traditionally cynical population. Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, at 1125, sixteen sleek camouflaged twin engine fighters flash across Berlin, turn just over the famous Linden trees and open up with each of their six 20mm cannon. Panic ensues amongst the crowds, and over two hundred bystanders are trampled to death trying to escape the fusillade of exploding cannon shells and anti-personnel bombs dropped by the aircraft. Hitler’s viewing stand is blasted, although he escapes death with shock and shrapnel injuries. Goebbels, Goering and several key members of the military and civilian hierarchy are killed outright or later die of their injuries – this attack heralds the beginning of the end for the Third Reich – Hitler is never the same again, the German advances stall under the lack of leadership, and the fledgling German resistance dramatically increases over the next year, resulting in riots, mutinies and eventual peace terms. The attack was carried out by Supermarine Gyrfalcon 1’s of 263 Sqn, led by Wg Cdr Jack Hawke, subsequently awarded the VC for his leadership of the mission. A fictional story? Certainly, although it could have happened if ‘Gyrfalcons’ [an invented name] had been built….
As the existing RAF biplane fighters reached their performance and capability peak by the mid-1930’s, the Air Ministry realised that, although single engine monoplane fighters with the armament capacity to carry six, eight or even twelve small calibre machine guns, heavier armament to knock down enemy bombers would be needed, such as 20mm cannon with explosive shells. The problem, at the time, with the immediately planned single seat fighters carrying such weapons was their limited range and ability to carry enough ammunition for cannons – after all, the fighters were, at the time, planned as short-range defensive aircraft. For attacking purposes, therefore, a heavy, multi-engined fighter would be required – one which would be able to carry multiple cannon, and perhaps small bombs – yet have the range and performance to fulfil multi roles. Nazi Germany, with her brand-new Luftwaffe, had also realised the need for such an aircraft, and put out tenders for the ‘Zerstorer’ [Destroyer] programme – a twin engine monoplane heavy fighter fulfilling the roles of ground attack and air to air combat. The two main competitors were Focke-Wulf, with their 187 ‘Falke’ [Falcon], and Messerschmitt’s 110. The Fw 187, [also named the ‘Jaguar’ when featured in early RAF aircraft recognition journals] was an outstanding design – the aircraft was very fast, although designed as single-seat, was also adapted to be a two-seat fighter, and outclassed the Me110. However [and perhaps fortunately for the Allies later], the Me110 was chosen – Messerschmitt was a Party member, and numerous members of the Nazi hierarchy had bought shares in the company….’nuff said!
Back in Britain, the Air Ministry had issued the specification F37/35 to develop an aircraft carrying four 20mm cannon. Initially, eight aircraft companied submitted designs, but only Supermarine, Hawker and Westland’s designs were for twin-engined fighters. There was concern that the wing loading of cannon would have a detrimental effect on performance and handling with the recoils of massed cannon, so the three designs were for nose mounted cannon. Although their ‘Airships’ preferred the Supermarine and Hawker designs over the Westland one, both the former companies were producing Spitfires and Hurricanes respectively as fast as they could, and there were Air Ministry concerns that a new fighter would lessen the Spitfire or Hurricane output. It was therefore decided that Westland would develop the ‘destroyer’ twin engine fighter [later named the ‘Whirlwind’] to be powered by the new Rolls Royce Peregrine engine that, on paper, showed promise. So much so that two Peregrines were eventually bolted together to form the new Vulture engine for heavy bombers, such as the Avro Manchester, which entered service in 1940. It was so unreliable, prone to airborne fires, and the Manchester could not fly on one Vulture. The Manchester was withdrawn from service in mid-1942, and replaced by the Manchester III – renamed Lancaster… A radical design, the Whirlwind was beset with design problems early on, not helped by the problematic Peregrine development. The aircraft eventually entered limited RAF service with two squadrons in 1940, and was withdrawn in 1943, only 116 having been built.
Watching these problems, the Air Ministry in 1937 revised the 1935 specification with F18/37 to upgrade the fighter to be even more heavily armer, with either twelve machine guns, or the firepower equivalent in cannon. Bristol, Gloster, Hawker and Supermarine all submitted designs, with Hawker’s being single-seat – the Vulture [!?] powered Tornado – a heavy single seat fighter that begat the Typhoon [with the Sabre engine], and later the Tempest. Supermarine’s Type 327 was all metal – originally had two Merlin engines, six 20mm cannon in the wing roots, and a projected top speed of 465 mph at 22,000ft. With development, and certainly with Griffon engines which became available by late 1942, there’s no reason why she wouldn’t have reached those performance figures. The long term plan [in 1937] was that this type of aircraft would eventually replace the Spitfire in Supermarine’s factory, but with the storm clouds gathering in 1938, just as the Spitfire was entering service, large contracts were given to produce them. The limited production capability that Supermarine had at the time would perhaps have made it difficult for production of the Gyrfalcon, especially as by 1940 Supermarine were also constriction two of their bomber prototypes [the Salisbury] in addition to their Spitfire production.
So the Gyrfalcon never flew. She was replaced by the Whirlwind, as mentioned, the Beaufighter, and the Mosquito. The Gyrfalcon would have sat between the Beaufighter and Mosquito fighter performance wise, but certainly would have eclipsed the Beaufighter, leaving the Beau to continue as a marvellous ground attack aircraft, and with a second cockpit would have been an even more formidable nightfighter than either of the two, given her armament. She could also have still been in service post-war – replacing the Mosquito and Hornet in the Far East, where those aircraft suffered with the humidity in their wooden airframes. Perhaps Gyrfalcon would have been the wrong name – maybe she should have had Mitchell’s original name for the Spitfire – ‘Shrike’. Mind you, Shrikes are also known as ‘Butcherbirds’ – which became the nickname for the formidable Focke-Wulf Fw 190!